Still only 25, Joss Stone has been around a long time. At the tender age of 16 she was the first to make her mark in the outstanding wave of soulful British female singers that included Corinne Bailey Rae, Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Adele. She may have had her setbacks, falling out with her record company EMI, taking dodgy artistic decisions (the lightweight ‘supergroup’ SuperHeavy?) and making a few embarrassing PR gaffes to give her a ditsy image, but she has sold a remarkable 13 million copies of her six studio albums.
For her latest, Stone has returned to her roots with The Soul Sessions Volume 2, a follow-up to her 2003 debut album of covers of mainly little-known ’60s/’70s soul songs (though sometimes by well-known artists), their retro sound lovingly re-created but stamped with her own strong vocal delivery. Not surprisingly, this material featured significantly in her impressive 90-minute set at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, amazingly the only UK date of her world tour.
As always barefoot apart from ankle bracelets, the long-legged, golden-locked Stone looked good in a figure-hugging black miniskirt and white top, swaying and giggling in relaxed mood. The audience seem to enjoy her self-deprecating chat between songs, though it sometimes verges on the incoherent or gushing, but there was no doubt from her warm stage presence that she was genuinely delighted to be performing back in her home country after a long gap.
That enthusiasm was injected into her performance; her voice has never sounded better. She always had the technique and the power of course, but now she sings with more maturity and emotional depth, not afraid to tone it down when needed. With a group of top session musicians supporting her, including two female backing singers and an on-and-off three-piece horn section, this was a really enjoyable evening of soul music.
It kicked off with a stirring, hip-shaking account of The Chi-Lites‘ Give More Power To The People. Other songs from the new album included the sassy While You’re Out Looking For Sugar, a fine interpretation of Womack and Womack‘s Teardrops, the heart-wrenching I Don’t Wanna Be with Nobody But You and an organ-swirling version of Willie Tee‘s First Taste Of Hurt. Stone dipped back further for early hits Super Duper Love and her sex-changing take on The White Stripes‘ Fell In Love With A Girl (Boy).
Temporarily ditching soul in favour of hip hop, she was joined on stage by a pair playing mouth drums and mouth trumpet for a beatboxing interlude, but this failed to convince. Stone is best when she keeps it simple, letting direct feeling take over, without any embellishments or affectations. For her encores she returned with two knock-out performances of The High Road and Right To Be Wrong, which she extended with great virtuosic skill, as the audience tried to prevent her from finishing.
Stone’s British following has fallen away a lot since her second album, Mind, Body and Soul, while she has become a star in the US and elsewhere in the world. But tonight’s show was a reminder of what a great talent she is – and the warm welcome she received should surely encourage her to come back soon.